Many of us have been drinking stale coffee nearly all our lives. At least, those who avoid cafes and stick with Dunkin’ and the like. Since entering the 3rd wave, coffee shops have been focusing more on the quality of the brew, going out of their way to make the freshest possible coffee. So what can you do to stay in the fresh stuff?
To ensure you have fresh coffee, buy whole beans from local roasters; check for recent “packaged on” dates, and avoid “best by” dates. Once the bag is opened, keep beans in airtight containers. Grind just enough for each cup.
Let’s look at these more in-depth and consider other factors involved in keeping your coffee fresh.
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When shopping around for local roasters or brands of coffee, there are a few things you should consider.
- Choose Local – This will help guarantee time hasn’t been wasted in transportation, and could allow you to tour the roasting facilities. If you show an interest, you could form a relationship and who knows where that could lead!
- Blends – Generally, you’re going to want arabica, 100% organic are what people are normally looking for. Bring the topic around to robusta, which many consider an inferior bean and is often used to lower to cost. Do they use it in any of their blends? If so, it’s worth giving them a shot, but many coffee snobs will tell you to outright reject robusta as the devils brew.
- Preserving Freshness – Ask the roaster what they do to keep the beans fresh after roasting, and how long they suggest the beans will stay fresh. The industry standard is to flush the bag with nitrogen, heat seal the packaging, and have a one-way gas valve (aka that hole you will see in nearly every bag).
- Social Responsibility – This is somewhat irrelevant to freshness, but you may want to consider what they do to help ensure the wellbeing of those in their supply chain. It’s always good to know where your money is going.
What if you can’t find a local roaster? The next best thing may be a farmers market, but if you’re forced to the local grocery stores or supermarkets, we suggest you…
Check the bag for “packaged date”, not “best by”
A subtle trick that larger corporations will use is posting a “best by” date so that people will feel they aren’t missing any vital information, but they don’t actually say when the beans were actually roasted and packaged.
More reputable bean companies will give you a better idea of this by literally posting the “packaged date”, which generally will be within a few days of the roasting date, given allowances for a “resting” period. This resting period is to let off some of the trapped CO2 from the roasting process, usually around ~40% of the post-roast CO2 is released.
Just for a demonstration of why these two dates matter: The actual shelf life – the time a food will last before it goes rancid or could make you sick – for opened coffee is as follows:
- Whole Bean – Pantry: 6 months; Freezer: 2 years
- Ground – Pantry: 3-5 months; Freezer 2-5 years
- Instant – Pantry: 2-20 years; Freezer: indefinitely
This is not desirable.
The time that roasters suggest for a whole-bean bag will last is about 30 days, optimally being used up within the first 15.
In general, it’s best to find a local roaster within your own state or city to buy from. Nearly all commercial coffee sold on a large scale simply can’t make it to your hands before too much time has elapsed, which is why they say some people have only ever drank old coffee.
Buy whole beans
When you grind coffee, the surface area is greatly increased. This is something we want if we are about to brew the coffee, since it’ll help more of the magic transfer into the water. But if we’re simply going to store it, then this is the opposite of what we want.
The more surface area, the quicker it will oxidize the beans. It will also release the CO2 that’s trapped in the beans much more quickly, and the oils may spoil as well.
All of these factors play a part when it comes to the freshness of your coffee.
Some have said that the freshness of coffee will only last a matter of days if the beans have been ground, others claim a matter of hours. It likely depends on how airtight your container is.
If you’re like me and want some of the convenience of ground coffee, but still want it fairly fresh: I buy whole bean bags, store them in a cool, dry place away from sunlight, and grind up small batches, which I store in an airtight jar for daily use.
It’s not as perfect as grinding it for one cup at a time, but who has time for that every day?
Store in airtight containers once the bag is opened
As mentioned in the past section, air is the devil.
For coffee, I mean. For us, it’s pretty essential. You may have noticed that pinhole-like spot on the bag of coffee. Before recently, I used to think that was simply so you could smell the coffee and see if you liked the aroma. Nope!
As beans are roasted, CO2 is trapped, which is an indication of how fresh it is. To see what I mean, when brewing in a style that will let you watch the grinds, look for bubbles come popping up through the grinds. That’s what the pinhole is for; it’s a gas valve to stop the bags from violently exploding as the CO2 is aggressively let off by the roasted beans. Just kidding. They won’t explode or even pop, but this was the explanation given and I found the mental image funny.
Anyway, that’s why I keep the majority of the whole beans still in the bag after opening it. Most have a method for resealing the bags. Squeeze out all the air you can before you do this. Or just keep them in an airtight container – whatever works.
If you’ve ground some beans, then the valve is not really necessary, as the buildup won’t be significant. If it were, you’d hear a pop every time you opened the containers, which is evidently not true.
Avoid Oily Beans
Supposing you’re able to inspect the beans before you buy them, know that beans should not be overly oily. If they are, this is a sign that they’ve been over-roasted. Too hot or long roasts will make the oils flow more readily outward, coating the surface of the beans.
This means the beans will more readily oxidize and lose both their scent and flavor. The result is a bean that tastes bland and burnt. As well, the beans will clump together more resulting in an irregular brew.
Does refrigeration extend length?
It’s a common mistake to store them in cold if you plan to use it every day. The temperature change will create condensation inside the bag. Moisture is one of the number one things you want to avoid in your beans because it will encourage bacterial growth and a dull flavor. As well, freezing any organism will alter its cell structures and for coffee, in particular, this means that the oils will break down and remove much of the flavor and aroma with each repeated freezing.
On the other hand, if you buy bulk and plan to only keep a portion in the freezer, this may be your only option, which will extend the beans’ shelf life for up to an additional month.
One last thing: make sure it’s in an airtight container to avoid as many of the downsides as possible.
Can coffee ever go rancid?
Since there are fats in the beans, yes, it should be able to go rancid, theoretically. The thing is that it likely won’t make you sick, it’ll just taste like garbage. There is a chance, however, that some of the fat compounds will oxidize and develop into toxic compounds.
In general, it seems like they may simply taste like rubber or cigarette ash.
Given that I had to dig a bit to find anything written on this topic, I’ll take it as a sign that rancid coffee is either uncommon or mostly harmless.
Just think if it were true: what media outlet wouldn’t love a scare story about the dangers of rancid coffee?
How long does coffee stay optimally fresh?
Honestly, you’d think there’d be a straightforward answer to this and that it would be easy to find. Instead, many sites talk about how long coffee will stay before it is no longer safe to drink. Rarely do they talk about studies or anything that mentions how long it’ll stay optimally fresh, flavor-wise. Lots of speculation, not much in the way of research or solid fact.
But I tell you what, here’s my best guess for optimal freshness:
The Rule of Fifteens
15 months for Green Beans to be roasted
15 days for Roasted, Whole Beans to be ground
15 minutes for Ground Coffee (left in open air)
15 seconds for a shot of Espresso
This rule is not hard and fast, of course. A normal cup of coffee doesn’t seem to conform well to the 15’s, either. Most chain coffee shops that prepare drip-style coffee, you’ll find that they will dump their coffee pots each hour. They are hardly the gold standard of quality coffee since most are a remnant of 2nd wave coffee, which merely aimed to get everyone onto the stuff.
I’d say there is a little more leeway for the ground coffee time frame, probably extending up to a couple days if kept in an airtight container.
For coffee that’s been made in any way other than as an espresso, I’d say you’re probably safe for under 10 minutes before it starts to significantly decline. Of course, piping hot, fresh-made coffee is best. Just drink it while it’s hot.
What are the signs that coffee is still fresh?
First, if it still smells like good coffee, then it’s still got something to it. Coffee’s flavor is connected with the same substances that create that wonderful aroma – the oils. If there’s no smell, then the flavor has also probably kicked the bucket.
Another sign will be whether the coffee “blooms” when you start to brew it. To bloom is the fast release of gas that happens when the grinds are immersed in hot water. This is a biproduct of roasting when the heat causes CO2 to become trapped in the bean. Slowly, the gas is dispersed into the atmosphere.
Some say that the gas helps to imbue the flavor of the beans into the brew, so they suggest that no gas = no flavor. While I have no idea if this is myth or reality, it certainly is related to overall freshness.
On the Go
When you’re out of the house and jonesing for the freshest cup, here are some tips:
- Bring a travel mug – many cafes will allow its use, which is both more environmentally friendly and will not taint the coffee with any paper flavor. They may even give you a discount!
- Check the Coffee Pot – If within sight, some coffee pots will have timers on the top so you know how long it’s been sitting there. Typically, a knob will turn, with each quarter representing 15 minutes – just like a clock. If it’s more than 30 minutes, you may want to consider…
- Espresso drinks – Namely if the shop is often filled with the familiar sound of a grinding machine. This is the surest way to make sure you’re getting fresh coffee.
- Small Coffee Shops – In general, the giants have much bigger, longer distribution chains and may have their coffee roasted in large batches. Smaller shops don’t usually have this benefit, instead having to opt for local roaster, which will ensure that the coffee beans themselves haven’t had the time to go stale.
- Ask the Barista – They will usually have the inside scoop on which beans and blends are preferred and how often they get them in.
Does roast matter?
Don’t quote me on this, as I couldn’t find anything remotely official, but some speculated on message boards that the “lighter” flavors tend to disappear faster. If this were true, then beans will taste like darker roasts as they age, meaning that maybe light roasts will last a little longer by progressing through the same profiles as dark roasts.
This theory, however, is assuming that it’s like a line-up of flavors that will be eliminated in a row, one by one. The other possibility is if the flavors and oils are all let off simultaneously, which means that lighter roasts could suffer more quickly because they have more to lose from the get-go and would appear to go stale faster.
Though, I had also heard rumors that dark roasts stay fresh longer, which was the explanation given for why Starbucks tended to have dark-as-night roasts shipped around the planet. Again, no hard research on this one, but feel free to give me your opinion!
What to do with your expired coffee?
If you’re merely looking for a caffeine fix and don’t care about the flavor, you could always brew it and drink the dark liquid that comes out of it.
But if you’re just going to toss them, then here’s a list of creative and useful ways you can still use the grounds instead of putting them straight in a landfill:
- Use them as fertilizer for your garden
- Compost them
- Repel mosquitos, fruit flies, and beetles by setting out bowls of grounds or sprinkling the grounds around outside seating areas (some compounds in coffee are toxic to insects)
- Facial scrub (mix with coconut oil, cleanser, or other face-ready substances)
- Remove odors (use similarly to baking soda)
- Use as an abrasive scrub for hard surfaces
- Use as a natural dye (shirts, eggs, paper)
- Tenderize Meat – the natural acids in coffee help with dry meat rubs to enhance the meats flavor
- Grow Mushrooms
- Fight Dark Circles under your Eyes – make a paste with coconut oil and let it sit on your eyes for 10 minutes once a day.
Well, this is the best I could find on keeping your coffee fresh and keeping you in the good stuff. If I missed anything or you find any of the information needs some adjustments, drop me a line! I always like to learn more about coffee!